Patrons checking in at the Ritz-Carlton must feel like the horde has descended. Surrounded by the rhythmic riot of street percussion, they dart for the shimmering glass doors, as behind them bull horns roar: “If we don’t get no contract—you don’t get no peace!”
But the truth is that this raucous crowd on the picket line—four to five hundred last Friday at the Ritz—are the very people who work in these fancy hotels, providing black-tie service with a smile, the very people who make the booming hospitality industry move.
Eighteen hundred Marriott workers are now on strike in our city, and they hail from 80 countries—but most I have met have been here in Boston for decades.
José Cabrera, 38, has spent half of his life working for the W, a hotel recently acquired by Marriott. He sees what is happening now as a tipping point.
“We finally have a majority of hotel workers union in this city, so we can push Marriott to play fair.”
On Sept 12, with negotiations deadlocked between UNITE HERE Local 26 and Marriott management, 96 percent of these workers voted to authorize a strike. That strike began on Wednesday, Oct 3, and has since spread to eight cities.
Locally, workers are out picketing from 7 am to 7 pm daily at seven different Boston hotels: the Aloft Boston Seaport District, the Element Boston Seaport District, the Ritz-Carlton Boston, the Sheraton Boston, the W Hotel Boston, the Westin Boston Waterfront, and the Westin Copley Place. Their chants can be heard for blocks: “Don’t check IN, check OUT!”
Juan Robles has worked at the Westin Copley for 31 years in the purchasing department. He now lives in Dedham, having been forced to move out of Boston by rising rents.
Even off the picket line, it’s a common concern across Boston: Wages are not keeping up with rent, forcing workers to take second jobs or live far from the workplace.
Meanwhile corporate profits soar. The largest hotel company on earth, Marriott’s gross profit margins for 2017 were 14.9% on more than $5 billion in revenue. Catering to the whims of the 1 percent, suites at the Westin now run to $1,500 per night. At the Ritz-Carlton, well over two grand.
This strike thus raises a fundamental question for our city: Who should benefit from Boston’s popularity as a tourist and conference destination? The workers who sustain the industry, or merely the corporations who own the hotels?
The strike’s main slogan is “One job should be enough!” In today’s Boston, it resonates.
On the picket line I also met Kia Modak, a first-year student at Harvard University. Active in SLAM, the Student Labor Action Movement, she wants to pressure Harvard to move its big events out of Marriott hotels.
Behind her, marching in his hard hat, is Tom Ward, member of Iron Workers Local 7 and the Boston Labor Council. “The Marriott is terrible,” he says. “They build their hotels with nonunion labor. There are already international boycotts against them.”
With dozens of orange mop buckets flipped into drums, it’s a picket line you can dance to: infectious and inviting—unless of course you’re attempting to cross it. It’s so loud, the cops on detail need earplugs.
Even inside Marriott hotels, these workers have allies. I ran into Eunice Buffaloe, a retiree visiting from Tennessee and staying in a nearby Marriott Courtyard. Learning of the strike, she was appalled; turns out Eunice is a lifelong union worker herself, a retired member of Communication Workers of America Local 3805.
“If I saw a picket line in front of my hotel, I’d check out,” she said.
The heart of the picket line remains the hotel workers themselves—hundreds of bartenders, housekeepers, cooks, servers, and attendants—bravely withholding their labor to pressure Marriott for a living wage, benefits, and more control over their workplace.
“All the picketing is tiring, to be honest,” Cabrera admits, “but it’s worth it. This is not just about me as an individual, it’s about everybody.”
Joe Ramsey teaches and organizes at UMass Boston, in the Faculty Staff Union (FSU/MTA), and in the Coalition to Save UMB. He can reached at [email protected].